How to climb inside a 35 year old body
I only began my climbing journey in 2018 when I was already 35 years old. I started going bouldering after work in an attempt to switch off from the relentlessly satisfying but quite addictive puzzle solving of software engineering. The immersive challenge of climbing was immediately engaging and I've not stopped ever since. It's now been 5 years of climbing indoors twice a week along with plenty of trips to local crags and several climbing holidays to Cornwall, Spain, The Lake District, Italy and Greece.
When I started, I had no core or upper body strength. I remember it was normal in my 20s that I would randomly jar my back just standing up. The muscles at the base of my spine would stiffen up stopping me from bending forward for a few days and forcing me to move as if I was balancing a glass of water on my head.
Thanks to the whole body fitness that climbing has given me I no longer experience that. I lose myself in 3 hour sessions in the climbing gym and feel fine the next morning. I keep up with guys 15 years younger than me. I can go on a 4 hour hill walk without any concern that I won't complete it. I can hike to a crag carrying 2 litres of drinking water and a 60m rope.
I can honestly say I am fitter and healthier in early 40s than I was in my 20s. But this transformation is thanks to several valuable lessons that I've learned on the journey. I will share these with you now...
I sometimes feel like I'm the only person who's read that generic laminated poster that's on the wall in the stretching area of every climbing gym. It's not very wordy but the few paragraphs it has just make so much sense. Basically, climbing works specific muscles that pull your joints in one direction. When those muscles rest they tighten up and continue to pull in that same direction. So in order to keep your joints balanced you need to work the opposite muscle set.... this is called the antagonist muscle set.
When I first started I was very aware that my unfit body was working at its limit so I took the poster's advice seriously and started religiously ending every session with push-ups. At first I could not even do 2 in a row, my arms would quake like 2 spahetti before I collapsed. But I would persist and repeat that pathetic set of 2 a further 9 times so I could say I've done 20. In a few weeks I found I could do 5 in a row, then 8, then 12. I remember vividly the feeling of elation when I first managed 20 consecutive push-ups. I excitedly shared my achievement with someone nearby... they didn't care. Because one thing about physical fitness is nobody ever sees what you could not do yesterday, they only see what you can do today, only you know your journey.
I still try to end every session with 3 sets of 20 push-ups followed by an all-over stretch. It's a sort of benchmark of fitness for me and an opportunity to check-in with my body. I know it works because I fell out of the habit for a few months and started getting problems with my shoulder.
Take a B12 supplement
I experimented with this after watching a documentary about veganism in May 2021. The film claimed that all modern diets (even carnivorous ones like mine) are deficient in B12. This is because B12 naturally occurs thanks to bacteria in soil but our modern food chain is so over-sterilised at every stage that even the cows aren't getting enough. B12 is essential in humans for a proper functioning immune system.
The next time I was in the supermarket I looked at the supplement shelf and found that 60 tablets of B vitamins were only 90 pence. Each tablet contained something like 6000% your required dose so I started taking 1 a week. It made an immediate improvement. Spots cleared up, my skin was brighter and I had a little more energy. In the long term I also found common colds affected me less.
Given how important this discovery was, I've often pondered why this is not more advertised. I suspect it's because there's no money in it. If ASDA can sell 60 tablets for 90 pence, whose going to bother trying to disrupt that market?
I will give one cautionary tale however; don't take them in the evening because B12 suppresses the hormone that makes you feel sleepy. I discovered this the hard way when I took one after an evening climb and found myself still wide awake at midnight wondering why I wasn't tired.
Don't be afraid to pay for physiotherapy
About a year into climbing I was starting to experience a dull ache in my arm when at rest. It was at its worse first thing in the morning; when I reached to lift the glass of water by my bed I would experience a shooting pain like toothache in my elbow. During this early period I would go bouldering after work and climb hard! Enjoying the feeling of pushing myself I would use sheer determination to grip harder, sqeeze my fingers tighter, crank my arms against gravity, ending every session covered in sweat because this is what I thought I needed to climb better. Pain was just weakness leaving the body, right? It turns out pain isn't necessarily weakness leaving the body, it can also be tendonitis.
The only reason I went to my first ever appointment with a physiotherapist was because my employee health plan allowed me to charge the £45 back. I thought private health care was a decedent luxury for WAGs and people who think golf is acceptable. But that 1 session totally changed my opinion. During the meeting the physiotherapist put my arm into various positions and instructed me to push against his hand in order to work each tendon and muscle in isolation until he had made me say Ow! enough to diagnose me with tennis elbow. He then gave me a load of advice about how tendons heal and showed me 4 rehabilitating exercises which I was instructed to do twice a day.
It led to me making a full recovery without having to stop climbing. I took it easy for a while and carefully avoided certain movements which consequently led me to actually improve my technique. £45 is a small price to pay to be able to do the thing that brings you so much happiness and I used a physio again in 2021 for a tweaked shoulder and in 2023 for a strained pulley in my finger.
Geek-out about muscular skeletal health
Having entered the YouTube rabbit hole of climbing injuries the algorithm had soon fed me a whole throng of videos made for climbers who want to keep their body functioning. These niche creations with just a few thousand views contain a gold mine of advice about tendons, bones and muscles. Little tweaks and niggles that I'd observed in my own body suddenly made sense and it changed the way I climb forever.
Around the same time I also experimented with following advice from really strong climbers and adding a twice weekly, 12 minute intense core workout to my routine. It made a huge improvement to my climbing and I remember feeling like having stronger abdominal muscles meant my arms were doing less work. This revelation, along with the antag, the physiotherapy and the videos, had finally broken my lifelong 1-dimension way of thinking about fitness. Despite those GCSE diagrams of a bicep, in the real world it is never just 1 muscle doing a movement. Muscles support other muscles. Your arms are held in place by a shoulder which is held in place by loads of different muscles which are all connected to a core. This is why someone who is good at one sport can try a totally different one and be quite good at it.
In summary, here are the things I started doing after watching all the videos: Open your grip, avoid full crimp, straighten your arms, warm up your neck, stretch your groin, relax your foot, strengthen your core, drive your hips in the direction you're moving, get bridged to find resting positions. The goal of climbing is to gracefully walk your feet up the wall.
Electrolyte muscle recovery drink
I picked up this tip in Oct 2021 after being outperformed by a climbing buddy who is 10 years older than me. After a baking hot slog up a sun-drenched slab in Avon Gorge we returned to his car exhausted. From an insulated flask he poured me a chilled glass of water that had one of those fizzy electrolyte muscle recovery tablets dissolved in it. This was the first time I'd drank one and it made a noticeable difference to my muscles in the following hours. My legs and arms didn't cease-up quite so much. They just sort of remained supple.
Soon after I purchased a tube of the tablets for myself and experimented with taking them after workouts. As much as I'd love to find a reason to not spend £7 on a tube of salty lemon flavoured discs I have to admit they do seem to rehydrate me quicker and speed up muscle recovery.
Take a pro-biotic occasionally
I was compelled to try these for the first time after struggling to recover from food poisoning in 2022. I had been on a climbing holiday to Kalymnos and enjoyed the octopus stew on the final day of the trip. The ensuing illness was an overnight 8-hour purge. A full clear-out via both ends. By a small mercy I was empty by 10am and thanks to bottled water and lucazade I was able to limp my way through the many stages of travel involved in getting from Kalymnos to Kos to Bristol to bed (that's taxi, boat, taxi, plane, bus and a walk).
Rehydration treatment and pain killers enabled me to get a full nights sleep but my appetite did not return. I went to work the following day, still not hungry. Then again on the Tuesday and by Wednesday I was worried. I had lost 1.5kg and my usual ravenous cravings for fried chicken and donuts remained absent. So on Hannah's suggestion I spent the evening researching how to cultivate a new gut biome.
The following morning I purchased posh kimchi from the Asian minimarket on Nelson street and then along the road to H&B for pro-biotics. I got a shock when the till rang up as £26 but I was desperate so I took the gamble. It paid off! Within a couple of hours of taking a pro-biotic I immediately perked up and my appetite returned. The kimchi tasted unbelievably delicious, each bite sending reward signals to assure me this was exactly what my body needed at that moment.
Since this experience I have gained an awareness of my gut health like never before. If I'm feeling a little off these days I don't just check the usual suspects of hydration and sleep, I now include gut health. I eat loads of plant fibre and only take a pro-biotic occasionally, a jar lasting me over a year which makes the £26 price tag not too steep.
Yes it's a massive cliche but I feel it would be dishonest if I talked about how I've improved my health without mentioning the fact that I did have to pay attention to my diet. It was on the final day of a climbing trip to Portland that I celebrated completing a rather difficult route by posing for a photo next to the rock. Looking through the viewfinder, Hannah suggested I might want to "lift my shoulders up", a polite way of getting me to suck my belly in. I understood the brief and cranked my shoulders together, puffing my chest out and she snapped the photo. When she showed me the picture I loudly protested "Oh my god is that the first photo?! You can delete that one!" and she sternly corrected me "No..... that's the second photo where you're sucking it in". I was shocked. I had no idea I'd developed a belly and looked like that.
When we got home I weighed myself. I was 106kg which is way too heavy for a 95cm tall man. So I went down a rabbit hole of research and learned about Basal Metabolic Rates and how to do calorie counting sensibly and I started weighing slices of cheese to calculate the calories and reading the nutritional labels on bread and tracking everything I put in my body with an app.
The whole process of data collection really appealed to the geek in me and I made sure I ate 4% fewer calories each day than I was burning. I found I was ending the day with the kind of hunger level where I feel like I should have a piece of toast. However, because I could look at the data and trust that I have definitely eaten the correct number of calories I was able to engage willpower and resist eating what would put me over my calorie budget.
The whole experience taught me to make wise choices. Some days I would mess up and have something with excess cheese or a donut or beer or peanuts and those things would deplete my calorie budget without making me feel satisfied. I'd have to go to bed feeling uncomfortably hungry despite literally knowing I've had all the calories I'd need. Other days I would make delicious plates of rice, chicken and vegetables, all grilled to perfection and seasoned really well and I'd go to bed feeling satisfied and properly nourished while having stayed under budget.
A few months of doing this and I'd shifted 12kg. I found 10 grams per day is the healthy rate that I could lose weight without negatively affecting my mental or physical energy levels. And of course, my climbing improved massively. Sometime later I actually tried climbing in a 9kg weighed vest and was shocked to feel what it felt like to be in my old bodyweight again.
This is the latest addition to my box of tricks to keep my body going. I got lucky and found a yoga class that is accessible to blokes who have incredibly tight hamstrings from a lifetime of sitting at a computer and riding a bike to the pub. My teacher Carie, has taught me easy variations on every position that make sure the stretch is happening inside the muscle, not the tendon where it attaches. So finally – after trying yoga 3 or 4 times in my life – I'm finally experiencing what people mean when they say "feel that deep stretch". Whereas before, stretching the backs of my legs has always felt painful like I'm witnessing a tendon injury happening live (which is apparently exactly what it is if you do it badly), now with my knees bent I may not look like a promotional yoga photo, but I certainly feel like one.
A surprising effect of yoga classes is how I've learned to become conscious of my breathing and gained the ability to alter how I am using my solar plexis during hiking/cycling/climbing in order to generate power from the breath. I won't go into detail but it's like finding the hidden switch to a second battery.
I must re-iterate, I did not get into climbing specifically to get fit. Climbing enticed me in with the challenge, the trigonometry body hacks, the fear management and the morally justified trespassing. Fitness was a by-product. I still maintain that exercising for the sake of exercising is dull as dishwater and I understand why people remain unfit. The motivation cannot simply be looking slightly trimmer. You have to find something that mentally engages you and is physical as a consequence.